McALLEN, Texas—The number of unaccompanied children crossing the border is causing concern over the knock-on effects the wave will have on U.S. schools and communities.
The first surge of unaccompanied minors in 2014 was followed by an uptick in MS-13 gang violence in the areas where most of the minors were placed. MS-13 used the unaccompanied minor program as a recruiting tool, and vulnerable children found a home in the violent gang, often either by coercion or for a sense of belonging.
Harris County, Texas, has absorbed the most unaccompanied minors since 2014 (more than 20,000), and state Attorney General Ken Paxton said he’s “absolutely concerned” about the nexus with MS-13, or “Mara Salvatrucha.”
“We’ve already shown from the past that some of these unaccompanied minors end up in MS-13,” Paxton told The Epoch Times. He said Houston is a hub for the transnational gang, while the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area also has a big problem.
“If we have a problem there, we definitely have a problem in the schools as well. Unfortunately, it is creating a problem for just regular kids having to be around these gang members.”
Paxton said MS-13 is known for “murders, extortion, racketeering, assaults, robberies, drug trafficking, human trafficking—that’s not an exhaustive list, but it covers some of it.”
The gang’s motto is “kill, rape, control,” and it has strong ties to El Salvador.
Gang members are required to commit violence to rise in the ranks, as exemplified in a recent Houston case where seven men were charged with a 2018 murder.
“The victim was allegedly beaten to death with machetes in order for the defendants to further their positions in the enterprise,” the Justice Department statement said on April 9.
Five of the seven were in the United States illegally, one was legally in the country, and the final one was in custody in El Salvador.
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operation in New York in 2018 resulted in the arrest of 99 confirmed MS-13 gang members who had entered the country as unaccompanied minors. Sixty-four of the 99 had obtained special immigrant juvenile status, which allows for a pathway to citizenship.
The Department of Justice reported in 2020 that 74 percent of the 749 MS-13 gang members it has prosecuted since 2016 had entered the United States illegally.
In 2017, ICE arrested 214 MS-13 gang members during an operation, 30 percent of whom originally entered the United States as unaccompanied alien children (UACs).
A Nassau County, New York, operation in 2017 rounded up 41 alleged MS-13 gang members, 19 of whom entered as unaccompanied minors. The indictment alleged the individuals were responsible for 32 violent acts in Nassau County including eight attempted murders and other shootings, slashings, and stabbings, according to Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas.
“The operation has laid bare the critical need to carefully examine how we are handling unaccompanied minors as they come into this country, because it’s clear that current policies leave a vacuum that can turn into a recruiting pipeline for violent gangs,” Singas said on June 15, 2017.
She said MS-13 is aggressively recruiting in high schools in the towns of Hempstead and Uniondale, but the gang also targets children as young as 8 or 9.
Former Acting ICE Director Tom Homan said the issues with MS-13 are “going to be worse” with the current influx of UACs “because they’re releasing more and they’re releasing them quicker.”
“Some of these UACs are going to be criminals, some are going to be gang members—not all of them, but many will be recruited by the gangs as soon as they get to their cities,” Homan told The Epoch Times. “It’s a cycle that repeats itself.”
In March, almost 19,000 unaccompanied minors—a record number—were apprehended by Border Patrol after crossing the border illegally, according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The number doubled from February when 9,400 were apprehended, whereas the preceding three months hovered around 5,000 per month.
Border Patrol is required to transfer custody of unaccompanied minors to Health and Human Services (HHS) within 72 hours. However, the sheer numbers have overwhelmed facilities and children are staying in crowded CBP holding facilities for sometimes more than a week.
Homan said Border Patrol agents at the Donna, Texas, facility told him fights break out among the older teenagers in the facility and “they’re showing gang activity there.”
In addition to the CBP facilities, HHS has opened several emergency holding centers from Texas and California to Pennsylvania to increase its capacity. By April 13, almost 19,000 children were in HHS custody—up from 11,500 on March 24.
By definition, an unaccompanied alien child is under 18 and has no parent or legal guardian in the United States, or no parent or legal guardian who is available to provide care and physical custody in the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Regardless, DHS has found that about 60 percent of children who are initially determined to be “unaccompanied alien children” are released to a parent already living illegally in the United States.
Additionally, restrictions placed by Congress in the 2019 appropriations package include a provision that illegal aliens in a household with an unaccompanied minor are now exempt from deportation. Exceptions apply for illegal aliens with aggravated felonies.
Unaccompanied minors are eligible for food stamps, medical care, and social services.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), which was enacted to protect minors, has become a loophole for smugglers and for circumventing proper entry. Most unaccompanied minors are from the Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, and the majority are aged between 15 and 17.
The TVPRA includes a provision that says a minor from a non-contiguous country can’t be turned back to Mexico or flown back to their home country—even if the individual isn’t a victim of trafficking, nor if their age, identity, credible fear status, or criminal background can’t be verified.
The Trump administration wanted Congress to amend the TVPRA so that minors who aren’t genuine trafficking victims can be quickly returned home or removed to safe third countries.
In addition, the Flores Settlement Agreement, a Clinton-era settlement of a class-action lawsuit, puts pressure on relevant government agencies to release unaccompanied minors quickly.
Under the Trump administration, more stringent measures were implemented to ensure the safe placement of unaccompanied minors. Since mid-2018, HHS has been required to submit the fingerprints of all potential sponsors to the Department of Homeland Security, which conducts criminal and immigration status checks before a minor is released.
The Biden administration has said it intends to relax the vetting measures in order to speed the placement of children to sponsors.
HHS didn’t respond to requests by The Epoch Times to outline its current vetting process or the average length of time a child is with HHS before being released to a sponsor.
“Whenever you hasten or quicken a process to make sure these people are who they say they are, and make sure they’re not a danger to the community, you’re putting the children at risk,” Homan said. “MS-13 and other gangs are taking advantage of open borders.”
He called MS-13 “the most ruthless gang in the world.”
“I’ve seen the results of some things they’ve done,” he said. “I wish President Biden and the Democratic leadership in Congress saw the things I saw in my career—maybe they wouldn’t be so quick to turn this border open.”